Monday, April 24, 2006

Plagiarism happens in larger arenas, too!

I ran across this strange story, about Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year-old author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, which contains material she apparently accidentally plagiarized from Megan McCafferty.

At first I was reluctant to believe something like this could happen inadvertently. How can someone copy passages that closely, and not realize it?

Yet the question also is: how can someone deliberately copy passages that closely, and not make it word for word?

Think about all of the times you paraphrased research material, back in junior high and high school, before you realized that you have to know the material well enough that you can explain it without looking at the book. Think of how hard it is to put something in your own words when you're reading someone else's.

What really changed my mind on Viswanathan was something I'd heard or read once about Helen Keller. She tried her hand at writing children's books, except she basically plagiarized a book she'd been familiar with as a child. (I think she pretty young at the time, herself.) She had internalized the story without even consciously realizing she had ever read the book.

And, come to think of it, during my teenage years my writing was heavily influenced by books I read and regarded highly. Not to say I ever directly stole an idea - I hope I didn't, at any rate - but I definitely chose certain topics or settings because of other books I'd read. For example, after reading Avi's Something Upstairs I wrote a ghost story-romance; after reading a book about a girl kidnapped by Indians I wrote a similar story; and after reading Cathy Cash Spellman's Bless the Child I started writing about characters with telepathic and telekinetic abilities. When you really think about it, writers are all influenced by other writers - what matters is that they have take their own angle on the ideas that influenced them.

So, my own personal verdict is that Viswanathan is telling the truth - she copied the other writer's work unintentially and unconsciously. However, I think cases such as Viswanathan's - and, I'm sorry to say, Helen Keller's - speak for the importance of a writer having enough sense to know the difference between creating a story and remembering a story. And although I've read a great many books by very talented - and very young - authors, perhaps the ability to differentiate is something that young writers, for the most part, lack.

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